Allergy season is in full swing in my little corner of the world, and I have been hit hard this year. Nevertheless, writing and editing continues and so today we’re going to revisit the topic of parallelism and using repetition as a literary device.
Some aspects of writing craft were never taught in school. Either that or I was mentally absent the day they were discussed. But as a voracious reader, I often think about books long after I’ve finished them, analyzing everything I like or dislike, and I have found certain patterns in the work I love. One thing my favorite authors have in common is they sometimes use the intentional repetition of certain key words and phrases to highlight an idea or show a scene.
This technique is an accepted rhetorical device and is commonly found in mainstream and literary fiction. The great fantasy authors will also occasionally employ repetition in a particularly intense scene, often in conversations where great drama is unfolding.
In literary terms, intentional repetition of key words is used to evoke an emotional response in the reader and can be exceedingly effective when done right.
Literarydevices.net says, “The beauty of using figurative language is that the pattern it arranges the words into is nothing like our ordinary speech. It is not only stylistically appealing, but it also helps convey the message in much more engaging and notable way. The aura that is created by the usage of repetition cannot be achieved through any other device.” (End quoted text)
Repetition as a literary device can take these forms:
- Repetition of the last word in a line or clause.
- Repetition of words at the start of clauses or verses.
- Repetition of words or phrases in opposite sense.
- Repetition of words broken by some other words.
- Repetition of same words at the end and start of a sentence.
- Repetition of a phrase or question to stress a point.
- Repetition of the same word at the end of each clause.
- Repetition of an idea, first in negative terms and then in positive terms.
- Repetition of words of the same root with different endings.
- Repetition both at the end and at the beginning of a sentence, paragraph, or scene.
- Repetition is also construction in poetry where the last word of one clause becomes the first word of the next clause.
One thing that has always been difficult for me is the way my narrative will feel awkward to me, and I can’t figure out why. My eye always wants to skip these sections, but when I take a closer look, I realize the awkwardness is caused by poor sentence construction—something even editors deal with in their first drafts.
When an author presents two or more ideas in a sentence or paragraph, they must be equal in importance, or parallel. So, when an author uses repetition of key words to present two or more ideas in a sentence for literary effect, parallelism is crucial.
This is what I mean when I say we intentionally craft our prose—we arrange our words for the greatest effect. Repetition has its place, but it must be intentional.
What parallelism means can be shown by a quote attributed to Julius Caesar, who used the phrase in a letter to the Roman Senate after he had achieved a quick victory in the Battle of Zela.
Caesar gives equal importance to the different ideas of coming, seeing, and conquering. In literary terms this is elegant on two levels:
- It employs repetition of the word ‘I’ to good effect
- Three ideas are presented in one sentence: He arrived in Zela, saw something he liked, and took it.
Consider the sentence: They fought in the streets, in the fields, and in the woods.
If you leave out the second instance of the word ‘in’ the sentence is no longer parallel. They fought in the streets, the fields, and in the woods.
In a series of phrases beginning with a word such as to or in, repeat the word before each phrase or don’t repeat it at all after the first one: They fought in the streets, the fields, and the woods.
However, in literary prose, there is magic in the number three: the emotional impact of three repetitions of such a small word as ‘in’ elevates the prose from merely reporting a fact to something poetic.
‘In’ is a correlative word, a word or concept that has a mutual relationship with another word or concept. It is rarely a standalone word, so when used in repetition the words it modifies must be given equal importance.
Intentional repetition of key words can create impact:
Pulling loose from his grip, Ellen wept. “I hate you, I hate your mother, and I hate our life!”
What we want to remember is that when we intentionally repeat a word or a phrase, each repetition must be given equal importance, or the phrase will become awkward in a subtle way. Our eyes will want to skip it, and we may not notice it but another reader will.
Sources and Attributions:
Repetition Copyright © 2017 Literary Devices. All Rights Reserved
Quote from the PDF Parallelism: They fought in the streets, the fields, and in the woods. http://faculty.washington.edu/davidgs/ParallelConstruc.pdf